Queen of the Elephants – Mark Shand

20200324 Queen of the Elephants

This book accompanies a 1995 BBC TV documentary of the same name, which I must admit I’ve never seen, but the book is fascinating. Mark Shand had made a previous trip across India on elephant back and recorded it in his book Travels on My Elephant which won him the accolade of ‘Travel Writer of the Year’ at the British Book Awards in 1992. That time he bought his own elephant Tara for the journey and at the end arranged for her to be looked after. This book starts with him visiting Tara for the first time in three years and renewing their relationship, but it is another lady that he had heard so much about whilst making that first journey that is the reason for this trip. Parbati Barua is a legend amongst people involved with the Asian elephant and she had agreed to help make a documentary about the problems they are facing due to their habitat shrinking so fast as humans encroach more and more into what used to be their territory.

Parbati is distinctly unimpressed by Mark’s previous exploit and when she agrees to take him on it is at the lowest grade in the camp, he has to earn her respect by proving (or in the case of making food rolls for the elephants trying hard but failing as he is too slow) to be good at what she expects before he can ride any elephant that belongs to her. Eventually he does get approval and then a certain limited level of respect as he demonstrates his hard learnt abilities from his last trip. Parbati is not easily pleased and this is something he learns very quickly.

At this point I need to bring up my main problem with the book, lots of local words (presumably Hindi) are used which may have been explained in his previous volume and which it takes a while to work out their meaning (assuming you don’t just google them from frustration) if like me you haven’t read it. Either a better explanation at the time they are first used in this work, or a glossary at the back, would have vastly improved the readability of the text. There is a comprehensive bibliography so the omission of a glossary is all the more surprising.

The three month journey that they undertake through West Bengal to Assam was once heavily forested but now is home to apparently endless tea plantations and the Asian elephant, being a creature of the forests unlike it’s African cousin, is being pushed into conflict with the ever expanding human population. As well as the trip with Parbati, Mark also spends some time with a group charged with keeping the two sides apart and sees at first hand the tragic consequences for both elephant and human when this boundary is breached. Parbati is frequently sent for by forest rangers to assist elephants injured by people just as they also come across humans that have been killed by elephants desperate for food and coming into villages where the locals try, and often fail, to persuade them to leave so annoying a huge and powerful animal. You hear so much about the plight of the African elephant it is fascinating to see what is happening to the Asian version not just in India but across the region.

Mark Shand was the brother of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, and sadly died on the 23rd April 2014 after a fall in New York. He was leaving a party following a highly successful evening which had raised £950,000 for his elephant charity when he tripped and hit his head on the pavement. Parbati Barua is, at the time of writing, apparently still alive and well and working with elephants.

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